Retrospect

If there is one book which seeded the thought of this blog it was Hannah Arendt’s Life of the Mind which I read in 2018 and then again the following year. I found its breadth invigorating and deeply regretted that it was unfinished when she died. To my surprise Arendt, whilst she is always respectful of Heidegger within the text, reveals herself to be a neo-Kantian, at least in my reading of the book. I also learnt that she was friendly with Auden whom she refers to once or twice, which further recommended the book to me. Her book does not so recommend itself to everyone. Mary Warnock in her anthology, Women Philosophers, describes the book as grandiose. So much the worse for the Oxford analytical tradition, was my reaction.
There was one insight in Arendt’s book which enriched my understanding of Kant’s moral philosophy. Kant’s discussion of ethics takes place at such a level of abstraction that I always felt troubled by his appeal to reason in explaining what the Categorical Imperative concretely insists we are required to do when we are confronted by any moral dilemma. For me ‘the the moral law within’ was complicated by psychological angst, the uniqueness of existential questions which suggest that there may be exceptions, however infrequently, to statements such as ‘Thou shalt not kill’ or ‘Thou shalt not steal’. Novelists like Dostoevsky are adept at exploring such issues by way of concrete examples. Arendt, in the unfinished final part of the book, suggests a way of accommodating this modern diffidence by referring to Kant’s third Critique, The Critique of Judgement. Here Kant distinguishes determinative from reflective judgement. Determinative judgements present no philosophical problems. There are empirical procedures for resolving doubt. For example, it may be unclear to which phylum a small organism belongs, but microscopic examination, anatomical characteristics , and even biochemical considerations should be able to resolve the question. In the rare instance of an organism which has reasonable claims to be in either of two phyla, it may prove necessary to tighten or elaborate definitions. Reflective judgements are typically for Kant aesthetic judgements (also teleological judgements about nature) and have a particular place in his philosophy. What he emphasised was that aesthetic judgements claimed universal validity despite being based on purely subjective experience. Who can doubt that Kant is discussing something very important when we consider the unassailable pre-eminence of Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Rembrandt for example? In exploring aesthetic judgement, Kant does not rely on the understanding as a supplier of conceptual rules but as a particular subjective power of the mind which all rational subjects share. We are in a different realm from that of scientific enquiry and with different procedures. Arendt suggests that ethical judgements should also be seen as reflective judgements. For example, our attitudes to homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia have changed over time, although disagreements are more strongly divisive than those on the relative merits of Bach and Debussy for example. There is a pluralistic (not necessarily relativistic) feel to modern day ethics which Arendt, by the recasting of Kant’s Moral Philosophy in the light of his analysis of reflective judgement, makes much more convincing while still preserving the cardinal feature of personal autonomy. Judgement is the faculty of thinking the particular as contained under the universal. In the special case where the particular is given but the universal has to be found for it, the judgement is of necessity reflective. Judgements of beauty and, to follow Arendt, of goodness are reflective judgements and although there is a remarkable degree of consensus, the criteria to establish the truth of a such judgements are of a different order from those of scientific judgements.
Two examples:
In King Lear, at a crux in the play Lear says ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning.’ Appalling as Lear is in many respects, at this high point in tragic drama, I think the majority of the audience accept the rightness of this anguished utterance, wrung from Lear in extremis.
In the Jeremy Thorpe case, where he was being prosecuted for the attempted murder of Norman Scott, there came a point in the trial where Thorpe was asked what he thought of Scott. Thorpe replied ‘I pitied him’. Much later in his summing up the judge said ‘Thorpe didn’t pity Scott, he hated him.’ Though this pronouncement was made after hearing much evidence, it is a reflective not a determinative judgement, and on its soundness the understanding of Thorpe’s motivation would depend.
To end where I began, Arendt’s book reawakened my admiration of Kant’s philosophy and it has been an excellent companion during this past difficult year of pandemic

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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